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House of Commons Hansard #44 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was quebeckers.

Topics

Business of SupplyGovernment Orders

5:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

I declare the motion lost.

Message from the SenateGovernment Orders

May 11th, 2010 / 5:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

I have the honour to inform the House that a message has been received from the Senate informing the House that the Senate has passed the following public bill, to which the concurrence of the House is desired: Bill S-215, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (suicide bombings).

It being 5:44 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

The House resumed from April 26 consideration of the motion that Bill C-501, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and other Acts (pension protection), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

NDP

John Rafferty NDP Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Mr. Speaker, I seek unanimous consent for the following motion. I move:

That, notwithstanding any Standing Order or usual practice, at the conclusion of today's debate on Bill C-501, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and other Acts (pension protection), a deferred recorded division be deemed requested, and the vote deferred to immediately before the time provided for Private Members' Business on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Does the hon. member for Thunder Bay—Rainy River have the unanimous consent of the House to move the motion?

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The House has heard the terms of the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

(Motion agreed to)

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, the very first bill I introduced after being elected to the House of Commons in 2006 was a bill that would give wages and pensions super priority in cases of commercial bankruptcy. Since that time the government has adopted much of what was in my bill with respect to securing workers' wages, and I am delighted that happened, but sadly, the government has not yet acted in any way to protect pensions in a similar way. The NDP bill that is before the House today picks up the pension protection piece that is crucial to protecting workers in these uncertain economic times.

Record job losses, the decline of entire industries, and the collapse of large employers are throwing hundreds of thousands of hard-working Canadians out of work. Far too many bankrupt employers are leaving underfunded pension plans in their wake.

Through no fault of their own, workers are thus finding that despite years and years of making pension contributions, they can no longer count on a secure workplace pension. Sadly, this is no longer the exception. With thousands of pensions lost in recent years, and many thousands more under threat, this has become a full-blown pension crisis.

For people who may be watching this in my hometown of Hamilton, there has been a bit of a misinformation campaign launched in our community in an attempt to discredit the provincial NDP. Fortunately, it is spearheaded by only a few and is readily disproved by the facts. The contention is it was the NDP government in Ontario that threw the floodgates wide open for corporations to underfund their pension plans and that is why we are in such difficulty now. That is complete nonsense.

Let me set the record straight. It is true that a number of companies approached the government in the early 1990s with a request for pension contribution holidays during what was then a serious recession. The government did approve a limited number of those requests, but only on condition that companies filed detailed plans with hard deadlines for repayment of the plans. Every one of the companies approved by the NDP government met those conditions. Every pension plan was repaid.

Stelco did not apply for its contribution holiday until after Mike Harris came to power in June 1995. Stelco filed its election to pay penalties rather than fund the plan in June 1996. However, the Harris Conservatives allowed that to happen without any requirement that a pension plan repayment schedule be either filed or met. Without such a binding requirement and without any enforcement, underfunded pension plans began to abound in Ontario.

That is how we ended up in the mess that has now become a full-blown pension crisis. I could cite case after case where workers are being left high and dry.

Perhaps the most galling example of recent note is the case of CHTV, where employees in Hamilton watched their underfunded pension plan wind up with an $8 million deficit. That means a loss of 15% of the money to which they were entitled. I know that to workers at other companies, a 15% pension cut would seem a whole lot better than the cuts they are facing, but the galling part in this case is that Asper's executives at Canwest were given $41 million to top up their underfunded pension plan before they went into CCAA protection, while workers got not a dime. There is not a fair-minded person in this country who will not find that completely outrageous.

Pensions are not some corporate slush fund. They are deferred wages, and workers have the unequivocal right to collect the benefits which they have helped to finance. Far from pitting one worker against another, the need for pension reform has united workers from coast to coast to coast.

The call for reforms is comprehensive. The bill before us today addresses one part of that. It secures every pension in Canada without costing the Canadian government or Canadian taxpayers a cent. It simply moves unfunded pension liabilities and the shortfalls in pension plans from unsecured status to secured status, and it closes the loopholes that currently allow companies that go into restructuring proceedings to leave their retirees high and dry.

Workplace pensions are just part of the problem, because only one-third of Canadian workers have a workplace pension. Similarly, only a third of Canadians contribute to an RRSP, and those who do just watched billions of dollars in precious savings vaporize over the last year. The current system is leaving too many people without the retirement savings they need. There is too much at risk and not enough security.

In past crises, Canadians have come together to create solutions, to minimize risk by sharing it. That is what we did when we created public health care, and yes, that is what we did when we created the public pensions that are now the only reliable part of our whole retirement security system.

Let us face it, for more than a generation, wages have failed to keep pace with the cost of living and most Canadians have not been able to save what they need.

The best way to help today's workers save enough money for tomorrow is through an improved Canada pension plan, which is why we are proposing that over the next several years we lay the foundation to double CPP benefits for the future.

The CPP has been proven time and again to be a safe, secure and efficient retirement savings plan. Plus, the CPP is portable from job to job, across provinces, keeps up with inflation, and is backed by the government.

Because the CPP operates independently from government, there is no cost to taxpayers. In fact, there is the potential for governments to save over time.

Higher and secure pension savings mean seniors would be less likely to rely on income supports like the guaranteed income supplement or provincial and local social supports for medicine, housing and food.

The cost to workers and employers is small. Over seven years, CPP premiums would only have to rise by .4% each year of pensionable earnings.

We all need to save more for retirement. Putting that little bit extra into the CPP makes more sense than investing it into risky RRSPs. It is safer, easier--in fact, it is effortless--and it earns more.

That kind of reform would be great news, particularly in a country where the rate of seniors living in poverty doubled from 3% in the mid-1990s to 6% in the mid-2000s. The maximum GIS benefit, intended for the lowest income seniors, was approximately $650 a month in 2009. That is only $50 more than it was in 2005. The maximum annual old age security and GIS benefits are approximately $14,000, which is $4,000 below the poverty line in most cities. In fact, right now there are over one-quarter of a million seniors living in poverty. It is a travesty. We can, and must, lift Canadian seniors out of poverty, and the easiest way to do that is by improving the GIS.

If we enhanced the guaranteed income supplement so that no senior would have to live in poverty, it would cost the government $700 million. That might seem like a huge amount of money, but when we look at it in the context of the last budget, it is a drop in the bucket. The government spent $6 billion just on maintaining its tax breaks for Canada's wealthiest corporations. This is not about a program costing too much. This is all about a government that cares more about its wealthy friends than it cares about the people who built our country. Conservative MPs should be ashamed of themselves.

If they got their heads out of the tar sands long enough to actually notice what is happening in communities across our country, they would realize that by denying seniors an adequate standard of living they are also denying them hope.

Let me quote the National Council of Welfare which said, “Poverty is not just a lack of income; it can also be a synonym for social exclusion. When people cannot meet their basic needs, they cannot afford even simple activities, such as inviting family or friends to dinner occasionally or buying gifts for a child or grandchild. Poverty leads to isolation and social exclusion, which in turn lead to other problems, such as poor health, depression and dysfunction. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope”.

What message are we sending to seniors when we refuse to lift them up to the poverty line? This is not good public policy. It is not even good fiscal management. It is simply mean-spirited and hopelessly shortsighted. As we know now, it is also flouting a decision taken by Parliament.

When the NDP introduced a comprehensive motion on pension reform in the House of Commons last year, that motion included increasing the GIS, strengthening the CPP, and shoring up workplace pensions. That motion passed with a majority vote in the House of Commons.

When the Prime Minister was in opposition he said, “the government is duty bound to respect the decisions made by the House of Commons”. The Prime Minister said that in May 2005 when he was the leader of the opposition. Well, he is in government now and it is time for him to walk the talk. He should accept that he is duty bound to respect the decisions made by the House of Commons and act on pension reform now. Seniors and hard-working Canadians deserve nothing less.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Edmonton—Mill Woods—Beaumont Alberta

Conservative

Mike Lake ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Industry

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to join my colleagues in speaking to the issue of pensions and income security of Canadians in retirement. In particular, I wish to address the actions already taken by the government to provide protection for the claims of pensioners in insolvency and how these actions are consistent with or exceed the protection provided by other countries under their insolvency laws.

Let me begin by acknowledging the challenges faced by Canadian pensioners and their families during the recent economic downturn. This government understands the issues and considers them extremely important. It is for that reason that we have taken and continue to take measures that will better protect pensions and pensioners, whether it be in a bankruptcy or company restructuring context, in the context of overall retirement adequacy, or in the more general context of how the national economy is doing.

Let me also acknowledge the specific challenges created for pensioners when a company files for bankruptcy under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, BIA, or restructuring under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, CCAA. Such proceedings have an impact on both current and former employees, as well as on the interests of creditors and stakeholders.

The concerns of employees and pensioners who find themselves in the insolvency process cannot be minimized. They have followed the rules. They have made their pension payments. But as a result of the insolvency of their employer, in some instances, they find themselves facing the prospect of reduced pensions.

The protection of pensions where an employer becomes insolvent is a significant element of our existing economic infrastructure. When considering the protection of pensions or any other obligation, it is important to recognize that both the BIA and the CCAA are fundamental marketplace framework laws that play an important part in maintaining Canada's economic well-being. They both set out rules for how individuals and companies may become bankrupt or may restructure their affairs.

It is always unfortunate when individuals or businesses find themselves in the position of being unable to meet their obligations. The economic reality of insolvency is that the creditors and stakeholders of an insolvent business that is no longer viable will receive less than what they are owed.

The insolvency system serves a vital economic purpose by allowing for a fair and orderly treatment of creditors, generally in accordance with the legal rights and obligations that were in place before the insolvency, as well as the fair treatment of the insolvent person or business.

In light of these principles, the government has already taken action to protect the claims of pensioners in insolvency. In recent years amendments were made to Canada's insolvency legislation, both the BIA and CCAA, to provide a higher priority for outstanding regular pension contributions.

This means that unpaid regular contributions are now paid ahead of secured creditors in bankruptcy proceedings under the BIA. In the case of a restructuring under CCAA, a restructuring plan cannot be approved by the court unless the plan provides for the repayment of unpaid regular contributions.

In the consideration of Bill C-501, where we are talking about giving super priority status to unfunded pension plan liabilities, we must assess the potential impact of such changes on the economy as a whole.

Unfunded pension liabilities are made up of the deficit between existing pension assets and the obligations to pay benefits to pensioners. Unfunded liabilities can occur as a result of poor market performance, even if all required regular contributions have been made.

To emphasize the point, the BIA and the CCAA are both important marketplace laws that potentially impact economic activity and business decisions of all sectors of the economy. Lenders, investors, suppliers, landlords, employees and customers, all make decisions based in part on the consequences that may ensue if a business were to become insolvent. Any changes to insolvency legislation should be approached with the effects on all of these players in mind.

When considering the protection of pensions through the use of the insolvency system, it is worth remembering that Canada is not alone in dealing with this issue. The practises of other countries can provide useful guidance in consideration of potential solutions.

As a result of the economic downturn and changing demographics, countries around the world are examining how to respond to the challenge of financing secure retirements for their citizens. Given the shared international challenge, it would be instructive to consider how pension claims are treated in bankruptcy in other major countries, and compare Canada's treatment of such claims in bankruptcy with that of countries with similar economies.

Clearly, any comparison will not be exact. Some countries, such as Italy and France, have mainly state-funded pensions and few private employer-sponsored pensions, which make the insolvency of contributing employers largely irrelevant to the amount received by pensioners.

Other countries, like New Zealand, treat pension claims as wage claims, giving claimants access to wage guarantee funds instead of protection in the bankruptcy process.

Still others, like the United States and the United Kingdom, have pension guarantee funds, financed by premiums or general tax revenues.

Bearing in mind these differences, it is very significant to note that Canada is one of the few countries among the members of the G20 and the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or the OECD, that grant a super priority for outstanding pension contributions. Among OECD members, only Canada, Japan and Poland provide for such a super priority. The other countries have a preferred or unsecured claim, providing for a lower degree of protection than Canada.

However, with respect to the protection of unfunded liabilities, like Canada, a large majority of members of the OECD, including such countries as Australia, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, treat unfunded pension liabilities as unsecured claims in insolvency.

This government has taken measures to better protect pensions through amendments to the BIA and CCAA, with the steps already taken being more protective of pension claims than that of most economically advanced countries.

The government, consistent with its throne speech commitment to better protect workers whose employers go bankrupt, is looking at broader issues and exploring comprehensive solutions, both inside and outside of insolvency law, to protect pensions and enhance the security of incomes for Canadians in retirement.

A further response to the complex equations implicit in pension discussions will be carefully balanced to do the most good for pensioners while continuing to protect the health of our economy as a whole.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-501, which was introduced by my colleague. He has analyzed the problem correctly and I think that he is introducing the remedy that is required for the moment.

It is amazing to me that we have found ourselves in this place, given what we and our parents have gone through since the Great Depression of 1929 and on. Our parents went through the Great Depression and came out of it. It took perhaps 30 years for the stock market to recover. By that time, anyone who held stocks was likely to find that the companies they held the stocks in were never to come back.

One would have thought, given the situation out of that recession, that people would have thought ahead and come to the conclusion that we had to work out an insurance scheme for the retirement plans themselves. It only makes sense. If we look at historical records, we will find that companies rarely last for huge amounts of time. We have situations where consumer tastes change. We have obsolescence in companies. Just plain bad management of companies leads companies to fall into tough times.

Workers and their representatives had an undying trust that they would somehow put their money into a pension plan and be able to have the benefits last until the end of their lives. This trust came at a time when there was a lot of optimism on the part of the workers. I also think that when young workers start, they rarely question the pension plan. Whether they are in unions or not, I think most people will agree that it is only when people get to be middle age that they really start to take a deep interest and question what their pension plans are all about and whether the money is going to be there.

Previous speakers have indicated already that we have a patchwork quilt of pension benefits across the country. I believe that only 33% of people have taken advantage of the RRSP program. Only another rather small percentage of people actually have a company pension. Of those, some have the defined benefit plans. Those have peaked and they are not increasing in numbers at all. If anything, they are decreasing over time. Those are the best plans, the Cadillac plans, that came around in the 1950s and 1960s. Those are more or less at an end in terms of their expansion.

Now we are seeing the defined contribution plan taking over. That type of plan is not as good as the defined benefit plans were. Through all of this, I fail to see why successive governments and workers' organizations themselves were not calling for an insurance plan for pension plans as early as the 1960s, knowing what we know can happen and does happen over time to the economy. I can point out other industries that have formed their own compensation plans or insurance plans.

All we have to do is look at the P and C, property and casualty, insurance companies. In 1987, I believe, after several bankruptcies of small P and C companies in Canada, the industry realized that this was bad for business to have a house insurance company go bankrupt and leave people stuck without having the claims paid and the premiums not returned. I could mention some names of some companies, but I will not do that now. It was a long process and at the end of it the companies decided this was a big enough risk that they got together with the governments, or vice versa, and they formed a pool. The P and C companies now have a pool so that if someone's house insurance company goes bankrupt and goes out of business, this pool steps in and there is an orderly wind-down of the company and the policies. As a matter of fact, it is so painless that the public does not even notice it is happening.

The same is true of the life insurance industry. It has a similar type of pooling structure. We have had travel acts in Ontario, in Quebec and in B.C. now for a number of years. Consumers in those provinces know, when they buy airline tickets, that if their agency or tour operator goes bankrupt, like Conquest Vacations did last February, that they are protected. There are provinces like my own, Manitoba, that do not have their own travel fund. They are not protected at all, but the consumers in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. are.

I was at a Canada-U.S. conference in New Orleans on the weekend. We were given a briefing on the oil spill on Sunday morning. They talked about the potential for the worst-case scenario and there is a fund set up for a limited liability of $100 million for oil spills, and the companies pay into this fund. Of course, if there is a case of an oil spill that exceeds the amount, or if the liability is determined that the company was negligent, of course it could be unlimited liability.

Potentially a company like BP, very healthy only a few weeks ago, might end up in a bankruptcy situation in the future. All the shareholders who thought things were going fine two weeks ago would lose their money, and the workers at BP would be in a similar situation to some of the workers we are looking at here, such as those from Nortel.

These are not isolated examples. They happen in the economy all the time, so the question is: Why can we not look forward and take precautions when we know it is going to happen? We are going to have workers who have paid into pension plans for many years and through no fault of their own are going to have a deficiency in what they can draw.

Bear in mind that the workers are not running the companies. It is the management that is running the companies. It is management that is making the bad business decisions that get companies occasionally into trouble. Then we have a situation when the company is going into bankruptcy, when the management ends up looking after itself. It was mentioned by the previous speaker that Canwest is an example. Management took $41 million to take care of itself.

The public gets outraged when it sees that happen. I know the member for Winnipeg Centre is listening right now and I can just see a speech starting to develop over this issue, because people see this happening. They see that management takes care of itself and the workers are the ones who are left holding the bag.

It is time we passed this bill and moved the workers to the front of the line.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to join in the debate on Bill C-501. I should point out I am not rising to speak just because I was challenged to do so by my colleague from Elmwood—Transcona. I have a legitimate and longstanding interest in the subject matter.

I want to begin by complimenting and thanking my colleague from Thunder Bay—Rainy River for bringing forward Bill C-501 on the subject of workers' pensions or the status of pensions in the event of bankruptcy.

We should start by recognizing the magnitude of the problem. There are more than 10,000 commercial bankruptcies per year in this country. In fact, that number is probably two or three years old. The number is probably higher, given the economic turndown we have seen happen in recent years.

Of those 10,000 commercial bankruptcies per year, there is over $2 billion in lost wages and benefits when employees are left holding the bag. In the current Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, wages, back wages and pension contributions rank dead last in order of priority for those claimants waiting to be paid when the assets of the bankrupt company are liquidated by the trustees of the bankruptcy.

A lot of people were surprised to learn that working people, ordinary Canadians, would rank dead last in priority. In fact, if we can trace it back through the NDP, the origins of the bill actually germinated in the riding of Winnipeg Centre, I can say with some modesty.

A number of my constituents, in 2002, came to me with the details of a bankruptcy going on in Winnipeg at the time, involving Storm-Tite doors and the United Steelworkers of America. The bankruptcy was taking place and not only were a bunch of employees owed back wages but the pension plan was in deficit by tens of millions of dollars. They were not able to meet the actuarial promises to the beneficiaries of the plan.

They came to me, shocked to learn that they were ranked so poorly in terms of priority when the trustees of the bankruptcy liquidated the company and that their pensions would be cut. Not only were some pensions cut in half, but some 20-year members would have no pension at all even though, when the assets of the company were liquidated, there were tens of millions of dollars left in assets, more than enough to make the pension plan whole. In other words, other creditors were secured, but the workers were not.

This led to an initiative that we called the workers first bill. We took it to Parliament and we had some co-operation from the Liberal government of the day. We met at length with Joe Fontana, the former minister of labour, and we negotiated and negotiated to try to correct what we thought was a horrible problem with the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

The push-back was not from business owners or the corporate community, because frankly if they are at the point where their business is bankrupt and they have walked away from the company, they do not really care what happens to the division of the remaining liquidated assets. In fact, many would be pleased if that money went to their employees rather than to other creditors. No, the push-back came from the banks. The banks said if they were not number one on the list of secured creditors in the event of a bankruptcy, if the debt to them was not prioritized as number one, they would never lend venture capital again. They were not going to lend money to business if they could not be guaranteed they would paid back first. That is where the push-back came from.

Again ordinary Canadians were frustrated, and we started to do a great deal of research around the country to find out the extent of the problem. We traced the origin of the problem. The real origin of the problem was the fact that so many Canadian pension plans are underfunded, as my colleague from Elmwood—Transcona was saying, not just by the 10% that is contemplated by the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, but by 30%, 40% and 50%, because there has been no aggressive and diligent policing of the enforcement of the legislation surrounding pensions. It was at the point where, as soon as private companies started getting into trouble, as my colleague pointed out, they were dipping into the pension plan as a last-ditch effort to try to find some operating capital to keep the company and the plant going for another year or two.

Again, if pensions had joint trustees, this would not happen. However, many of these pension plans are in the absolute control of the company and the company just cannot keep its fingers out of that pool of dough, especially when the going gets tough and it is has a problem. Conrad Black, with Dominion stores, is a classic example. He was taken to court because he took $80 million out of the pension plan of employees and never put it back.

I am proud we are at this juncture in Parliament today.

Some progress was made in the treatment of back wages owing to workers in this initiative. When we did raise the workers first bill, we did get the co-operation of the Liberal government of the day to put in place a special super priority fund for up to $3,000 for back wages payable to employees, so they would get super priority. That was a huge benefit. The $3,000 was adequate. If a guy has not been paid wages for two or three weeks or a month, he probably will quit the job anyway. About 95% of claimants were owed less than $3,000 and would get satisfaction from that fund. I am glad to say progress was made on that front.

The big problem remaining is not the guy who is owed $1,500 or one two-week back pay cheque. The problem is some of these pensions are underfunded by $10 million, $30 million and $50 million. When a company goes bankrupt, the pensioner, who has worked all his or her life in good faith and whose pension has been held as deferred wages on his or her behalf by the company, finds out the money is not there.

We had one example in New Brunswick. There were over $100 million in assets in the company when it was liquidated. It had a great deal of high-tech machinery and property and buildings that were of significant value. The pension shortfall was $40 million. We brought some of these people to Ottawa to plead their case with the government of the day. There was more than enough money in the assets of the company, when liquidated, to make this pension plan whole. We had examples of workers who had 32 years of service and they did not get one nickel in pension.

This was the tragedy in real terms. The effect is overwhelming when we consider 10,000 bankruptcies per year and over $2 billion in back wages per year that should have gone into the pockets of the employees in the company. I would argue that most business owners would rather the moneys realized from liquidating the assets go to their employees as a gesture of good faith as the company wraps up and is closed.

Bill C-501 would address this measure. I know there is broad interest and support from the other parties. If we do nothing else in this session of Parliament, we hope we make Canadian workers who suffer bankruptcies whole in their pension savings and in their retirement security by passing Bill C-501.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

John Rafferty NDP Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise to close debate on my private member's bill, Bill C-501, and thank the House for the opportunity to do so.

The legislative process at times can be messy. We know this and we have seen it with other business presently before the House. However, we also know that sometimes, when there is a common interest and a shared commitment among parties, such as between the Liberals and Conservatives on HST, we know that legislation can pass through this place and the other place in as little as four days.

Bearing that in mind, on June 16, less than a year ago, every member of every party in the House passed a motion that said they fundamentally shared a desire with the NDP to:

—ensuring that workers’ pension funds go to the front of the line of creditors in the event of bankruptcy proceedings...

The Liberal block and, yes, the members who sit with the Conservative government agreed that pension funds must go to the front of the line when a company entered bankruptcy.

Bill C-501 is a simple bill, straightforward, that respects and fulfills the unanimous desire of all parliamentarians in this place to put pension funds at the front of the line when the company enters bankruptcy. If members support this objective, then they will support my bill and vote to send it to committee. If a party opposes the bill, then it is going back on its word and misleading Canadians. It is really that simple.

Today the Conservative government appears to be sliding back on its word or on its commitment to more than 4.7 million Canadian families who worry every day about their retirement income. The Conservative government and its members, who are planning to vote against Bill C-501 or who are trying to stop the bill by other frivolous means, are slaves to an outdated ideology that says we must put the vultures and the shadowy backroom financiers, like those who used to work at Lehman Brothers and those who still work at Goldman Sachs, ahead of hard-working Canadian men and women who have earned their wages, who have earned their pensions and who have earned a dignified retirement.

The Bloc Québécois members have stood by the commitment they made to working Canadians last June and have indicated they will support the bill. I thank them for their support and I hope they will prove to be reliable supporters throughout the legislative process.

The Liberals have made similar noises, but in the past have proven to be unreliable when it comes to supporting workers' rights or progressive bills or motions for that matter. I remind the Liberal caucus that in finance committee on March 25, the Liberal finance critic, the member for Markham—Unionville, said:

—the pensions critic for the Liberals, and myself as finance critic, will be recommending that the Liberal Party support the NDP private member's bill on amendments to the BIA, as and when it comes to the House of Commons.

I thanked the hon. member at that time for his remarks. I remind him and his Liberal colleagues today that words mean nothing if they are not accompanied by deeds.

However, the Liberals do appear to have come around to the New Democrat position that pension security must be among the highest priorities in Parliament. I thank Liberals for their support, if it is forthcoming for the bill, but I remind them that in the end they will be held accountable by the voters for their actions.

It must be said again that each and every member of this place must live up to the commitment that they made to millions of Canadians on June 16, 2009 and that they must vote now to send Bill C-501 to committee, where it can be properly examined, debated and perhaps even amended as need be.

I thank the members of the House who have shared their thoughts, concerns and support for Bill C-501 during this debate. I urge them to live up to their commitment on pension security and pass this bill unanimously.

Bankruptcy and Insolvency ActPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Pursuant to an order made earlier today the question on the motion for second reading of Bill C-501, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and other Acts (pension protection), is deemed put and the recorded division is deemed requested and deferred to immediately before the time provided for private members' business on Wednesday, May 26.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Siobhan Coady Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Mr. Speaker, a few short weeks ago I asked the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development about her office's obstruction of an information request about a $5 million advertising campaign during the Olympics. As I said at the time, the media had a simple question, department officials had the answer and the minister's office intervened and hid the truth. The minister, in her response, stated:

We will be taking a look at this example and taking it into consideration to see how we can improve our processes in the future.

However, what has she done to improve that process? Based on her statements since, it seems that political control of information is even more rigid than we could have imagined. While appearing at the ethics committee this week, the minister stated that her office vetted everything government departments told reporters. So much for open and transparent government.

How far does this extend? If a reporter asks the department a simple question such as where Tim Hortons is, does it have to go to her political staff to get the answer?

The government has many trained communications staff to deal with media requests, whether complex or simple. The ministers in the government need to let them do their job without interference. In fact, the Privy Council Office was before the operations committee yesterday. It told us that it had hired an additional 20 communications experts under the economic action plan.

The minister's entire approach is not in principle with an open and transparent government. It seems as though on access to information requests and requests for information from journalists, the government's first instinct is to release as little information as possible, as late as possible and as incomplete as possible.

The Information Commissioner recently reported that access to information has reached a “red alert” level in some departments and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada received a “C” rating. In addition, the Information Commissioner is undertaking a systemic investigation to examine whether political interference in the processing of access requests is a cause of delay or unduly restricts disclosure under the act.

As we saw even today at the ethics committee, a political employee in the office of the Minister of Natural Resources, for example, could not even recall if he interfered with access to information requests more than once.

His colleague in the office of the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development is set to appear in front of the same committee on Thursday to address the exact issues I raised in my question. I hope he can explain not only to our colleagues on the committee but to all Canadians why they should not have been told that the government was spending nearly $5 million on self-promotion around the time of the Olympics.

Since the minister seems to embrace the notion that all requests need to be vetted before information is given to journalists, I am not terribly confident there will be an admission that political interference is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Again, what new measures will the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and the Prime Minister implement to ensure information is given to the media, that access to information is given to all Canadians, members of Parliament and everyone? So far we have only heard the minister's endorsement of political interference.

6:30 p.m.

Mississauga—Erindale Ontario

Conservative

Bob Dechert ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity today to clarify the facts of this issue, facts that the Liberal member is purposely ignoring in an attempt to score cheap political points.

First, I would like to clarify something. In the member's original question, she claimed that this was an access to information request. It was not. It was a routine media inquiry.

A reporter contacted the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada requesting information on the economic action plan help for workers ad campaign that ran during the Olympics two days before the ad campaign was completed. He specifically asked for two things: the cost and the frequency of the ads.

Ad campaigns are unique in that they do not have fixed costs. It is impossible to respond to the question of frequency of ads before an ad campaign is over. There are a lot of reasons as to why the number of ads that are aired usually differ from what was estimated and budgeted. It is also important to point out that the cost of an ad campaign depends on the frequency of the advertisements. As the frequency cannot be known until after an ad campaign is over, obviously the accurate cost cannot be known either.

As soon as the ad campaign ended, the frequency was actually known and the more accurate costs were available. That information was provided to the person who requested it. This was the prudent and responsible thing to do. Again, accurate information was provided in a timely manner.

I would also like to point out that all the rules and guidelines under the Government of Canada's communications policy were followed. Those are the facts.

I continue to be disappointed by the Liberals and the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl. They keep distorting facts and going on fishing expeditions instead of doing what our Conservative government is doing, which is working on the issues that actually matter to Canadians and constituents like hers and mine, important issues like the economy and creating jobs, keeping families safe but keeping criminals off the street, improving employment insurance, protecting consumers at the pumps, creating jobs through investments in infrastructure, and cutting taxes so hard-working Canadians can keep more of their money to spend on things that matter the most.

Those are the issues that Canadians care about. They elected us not to play partisan games but to work on issues that are important to them and to their families.

I have already stated that all of the rules were followed in responding to the media request in question.

6:35 p.m.

Liberal

Siobhan Coady Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am actually disappointed with the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour for not given responding to my question.

My question was about political interference. We now have a committee of the House looking into political interference. The Information Commissioner is looking into political interference. In the member's response, he certainly did not indicate that they were concerned about this issue and about the fact that there might have been some political interference.

The media made a simple request to get information about how much money was spent during the Olympics for a particular program. Surely the department, with all of its skill, was looking at how much money it would spend, where it would spend it and how it would spend it. I am sure the member would agree that this kind of planning and involvement by the department is essential.

I will again ask my question. Is he or is he not concerned with political interference in these requests?

6:35 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Conservative Mississauga—Erindale, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I have already stated, all of the rules were followed in responding to the media request in question. As soon as the ad campaign ended, accurate information was available and it was provided. The prudent and responsible approach was taken.

I would like to ask the member for St. John's South—Mount Pearl and the Liberal leader to stop these ridiculous fishing expeditions, start listening to their constituents and start focusing on what matters most to Canadians.

I would ask if her and her leader will support our Conservative government's ongoing efforts to strengthen our economy and create jobs. Will they support our efforts to keep families safe by keeping violent offenders off the street? Will they support our efforts to strengthen the employment insurance system?

Those are the issues that Canadians care about and I suggest that the member should start paying more attention to what matters to her constituents.

6:35 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Liberal Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today and discuss the issue that I attempted to raise in question period on March 4, 2010. My question at the time was for the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and it concerned the new citizenship guide that had come out in the fall.

Reports had just come out on the new citizenship guide. The bureaucrats and public servants, after doing all the work of consultations with experts, et cetera, had prepared a draft guide. When it was finalized, it went to the minister and the minister ordered that a reference to equal civil marriage rights for same-sex couples be removed.

When I raised this with the minister, the minister's response was that x, y and z were also not mentioned and that the previous guide, which was published under the previous Liberal government, made zero mention of gays and lesbians, women's voting rights, equality of men and women or aboriginal residential schools, and he went on. He is perfectly right. The previous citizenship guide that was published under the Liberal government did not make those references.

That guide, if I am not mistaken, was published some 15 or 16 years ago. Society evolves and the values of society also evolve. It was the public servants, through their consultations, who felt that the reference to equal civil marriage rights for same-sex couples should be an important part of the new guide that was coming forward in the third millennium, in the 21st century, given how Canadian society had evolved and given our notions of democracy, equality and the impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I will not apologize for shortcomings that may have existed in the previous citizenship guide. In fact, when that was first published, my understanding is that there were no criticisms of it for not mentioning certain things. However, as we hit the third millennium, issues were being raised about how it was not fully representative of our modern democracy and how Canadians see themselves.

I was quite dismayed by the answer from the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism because it sounded to me like a child saying, “So and so is not any better and that excuses my behaviour”. The minister deliberately had the reference removed. I think it was unjust and it should not have happened. I wonder what the minister's motives were for doing that.

6:40 p.m.

Oshawa Ontario

Conservative

Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, in response to the question by the hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, the government determined that the previous guide introduced 15 long years ago lacked important information about Canada's history, military contributions, symbols, values and institutions, all things that newcomers need to know to develop a better understanding of and a stronger attachment to Canada.

The new guide, Discover Canada, has been endorsed and celebrated across the spectrum as a great reflection of this country's history, geography and values. For example, the Ottawa Citizen stated, “Discover Canada is a marked improvement over its predecessor. It's readable and interesting and includes a detailed section on Canadian history...It also shows more respect for immigrants by giving them a more complete picture of the country they've chosen as their own.The old guide whitewashed Canadian history and politics...All Canadians, whether born here or not, could probably learn a thing or two from this guide. No attempt to summarize this country's culture, politics and history in a few dozen pages will ever please everyone, but Discover Canada is a worthy effort”.

As we have said, many respected Canadians helped us write the study guide. Each one of the authors and historians contributed his or her expertise and unique perspectives on Canada. All input was considered as part of the challenge of capturing Canada's history, identity and values in one document.

Readers of today's new study guide will find it more inclusive. It contains information on significant aspects of our history that were missing in the previous version, including Confederation, responsible government and Canadian democracy.

It also now features efforts by women to achieve the right to vote, or the women's suffrage movement, as well as expanded sections on Canadian heroes such as Terry Fox, Rick Hansen, Sir Frederick Banting, winners of the Victoria Cross, Louis Riel and Sam Steele.

It mentions the Québécois nation and the quiet revolution for the first time, and the French Canadian culture that flourished in Canada's postwar years. It exposes new Canadians to Canadian artists such as Bill Reid, Jean-Paul Riopelle, the Group of Seven, Denys Arcand and others.

The new guide recognizes gay and lesbian Canadians. It also contains references to slavery and abolition and the impact of residential schools on aboriginal peoples.

It recognizes that 110,000 Canadians gave their lives in two world wars and it talks about Remembrance Day.

This guide exposes readers to these and other aspects of our Canadian history for the first time since the guide was created in 1995.

The Globe and Mail said:

Canada has been shortchanging Canadian immigrants preparing for their citizenship tests with a bad guidebook. The federal government's newly revised preparatory booklet distributed to test-takers...is a welcome move that places a new and appropriate emphasis on Canada's history and personalities....

[T]he new guide shows how the country is special, and does so with vigour. In telling Canada's stories, and the conflict, characters and challenges therein, it will enhance new Canadians' attachment to their country.

The Government of Canada is committed to promoting and strengthening the value of Canadian citizenship. We are making Canadian citizenship meaningful so that hundreds of thousands of new Canadians can better understand the values, symbols and institutions that have shaped our great country.

This guide is a big improvement on its predecessor and we will update it as required.

I would conclude by adding that Discover Canada is not the only way to communicate with newcomers. In fact, a publication many newcomers receive upon their arrival, Welcome to Canada, is being updated and it includes a specific reference to the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Marlene Jennings Liberal Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, that does not take away from the fact that internal department documents show that an early draft prepared by public servants after extensive consultation contained the following references: homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation; and same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005. The minister had all of these statements.

The wonderful things that are in the publication do not take away from the fact that those internal documents also show that the minister ordered the sections the public servants had put in the first draft of the citizenship guide to be removed and that after the minister ordered them to be removed, the deputy minister in August 2009 recommended that they be inserted.

Canadians are proud of their country and they are proud of the rights given to all Canadians regardless of their sexual orientation.

I am again dismayed by the attitude of the government.

6:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The hon. parliamentary secretary.

6:45 p.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, the previous inadequate study guide for Canadian citizenship was rewritten with a broader and stronger focus on the history and institutions of Canada and our military contributions.

The new guide is more comprehensive in scope and its focus is on the rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship. We hope this new emphasis reinforces that citizenship is a two-way street.

As I have said, while this guide is a big improvement on its predecessor, no such document can ever be perfect, and we will update it as required.

Once again, Discover Canada is not the only way to communicate with newcomers. A publication many newcomers receive upon their arrival, Welcome to Canada, is currently being updated and it includes a specific reference to the right of gays and lesbians to marry.